Our book today is Following the Water by David Carroll, the latest of his thin, beautiful meditations on life and nature ... and turtles.
I've praised Carroll's work here before, and Following the Water is another miniaturist masterpiece. Carroll's work-approach hasn't changed in the last thirty years: put on some waders, fill a camera, pack a sturdy journal, and go out into the streams and wetlands where the turtles are.
He encounters all kinds of creatures, of course, not just turtles (this latest book has a mesmerizing little encounter with a deer, for instance - just two living creatures accidentally happening upon each other in the landscape, regarding each other with neither fear nor violence), and he mostly does this by slipping out of frenzied human time and into the more fluid, less restrictive time of the natural world. Following the Water is full of descriptions of what that shift feels like, and the good things it can do for your soul (I know that state intimately, having spent a great deal of time in it thanks to a lifelong close association with dogs - but far too few people I know in today's harried society seem ever to have felt it).
Not that Carroll is always meandering in his latest book - since he spends a great deal of time out of doors, he can describe with perfect accuracy one inevitable hazard, sudden rain:
Running, that is, hurrying in my turtlelike imitation of running,up the last fifty yards of the gentle incline of the old logging road, I just beat a heavy downpour to my car. My history of turtle-nesting time is marked by dodging thunderstorms, twice being overtaken by swift and violent ones, and being pinned to the earth by them. I had heard this one coming for a few minutes, that roar like a sudden wind, an almost trainlike sound in the trees, though all around me was breathlessly still. Though not far off, the sound came from the south, and I thought the east-west drift of the rain would have it pass by me. But then, seeing the near landscape go silver with heavy rain, I made my move just in time.
This is a sadder book than Carroll's previous ones - the wild places he so loves are, after all, extremely delicate ecosystems, and mankind is always encroaching. Time and again, Carroll hits a note of impending doom:
I have long witnessed the invasion that takes the heart from the landscape, and it has taken much of the heart from me. Increasingly in my later years of following the water, following the turtles, I have had to turn away. Sometimes I stay away for an extended time, and there are places to which I cannot return at all.
Luckily for all of us, no matter how clearly he sees this darkening future, his heart is too much a part of those delicate wild places to abandon them, or to abandon the gorgeous chronicle he's built of them over the decades. "But where wildness lingers" he writes "and turtles hold within it, that original searching, that early unquestioned need to be there, draws me back."
I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping he keeps getting drawn back. These books are among the finest and most sensitively intelligent examples of natural history-writing currently being written in English. If his beloved turtles can hold on long enough to give Carroll fuel for a few more books, maybe those books themselves will help to make the doom a little less looming. Certainly few animals have ever had such a perfect champion.